Response to “This is Not Your Grandchild’s Madison School District”

This is an open response to Mary Battaglia and Larry Winkler’s posts on the data showing rising numbers of low income and minority students in the Madison Metropolitan School District.
I tend to agree with Larry Winkler’s take that the “low income” and “minority” data is more of a diversion from the larger discussion of standards and achievement in our schools. The district and board have presented data on low income and/or minority status (not synonymous) as if it is an explanation or an excuse for the low expecations and low achievement levels of portions of the district student body.
We need to rethink to how our schools and educational programs operate and are staffed if we are to achieve high educational standards during a time of demographic change. We are seeing changes that include more low income students, students of color, populations for whom English is a second language, and students of all backgrounds who face extraordinary challenges at home. We also are seeing more stress among students who are under extreme academic pressure at home and at school in ways that did not exist twenty years ago.
We don’t have the same populations that we had five or ten years ago. Why would expect to sustain high academic achievement without a discussion of whether we need to realign our human and financial resources in order to do so? (And I’m not talking about one-directional PowerPoint presentations that don’t get at the issues.)

When I’ve met with other parents of students of color at East — which has the highest proportion of low income and highest proportion and number of minority students of the Madison high schools — we’ve discovered that we are on the same page: we want the district to raise the expectations and the standards for all students and students of color in particular. There is common understanding that good education is fundamental to good futures.
This desire was echoed in the recent East High United Meeting, where we discussed advanced academic classes (TAG, AP, other). While there was passionate interest in classes at these levels, there also were some good questions and good discussion about the standards and expectations in ALL of our classes.
The tough part is that there have been few serious discussions of what this indicates for resource allocation in general, or for specific schools, within this district. The Northside Coalition has tried repeatedly to obtain a serious discussion of the equity formula, and I distinctly remember Barbara Golden and others from MAFAAC raising equity and minority achievement at school board meetings last year.
Sadly, the board chose to spend more time considering whether to allow live animals in the classroom than it did responding to either issue. Even if one accepted an argument that there wasn’t time in monthly board meetings, one might have expected to see such issues raised in relevant committees such as Performance and Achievement or Finance and Operations.
The issues were not raised in the board or in committee, however, and as a result, we had yet another budget that did not align cuts or spending with the board’s stated priorities for student achievement.

11 thoughts on “Response to “This is Not Your Grandchild’s Madison School District””

  1. I formally applied to serve on the equity task force. In my explanation for why I wanted to serve, I said, “I would encourage the group to look not just at the equity formula as an end in and of itself, but to research whether the formula has been used, and can be used more effectively in the future, to improve academic success.”
    Low-income and minority are not synonymous with dumb. Low-income and minority kids can learn if administrators and teachers have high expectations AND use curriculum proven to be effective for students who arrive at school with fewer advantages than others. Milwaukee has 90/90 elementary schools, where the enrollment is 90% low-income and 90% of the third graders score in proficient or advanced on reading tests. (Of course, those schools use Direct Instruciton, a curriculum which the MMSD rejects, as in rejecting the $2 million federal reading grant.)

  2. Ed,
    You hit it right on the head. Thank you so much for your relentless optimism and advocacy. Your willingness to serve, and your wealth of relevant information, is a great benefit to anyone who envisions Madison schools as they could be.

  3. As some commentators have argued, even the continual discussions of standards can, and often is, diversionary. Setting standards is easy; grading schools/states on meeting the standards is easy. Allocating resources to meet the standards is hard, and is not being done.
    One commentator (Wiggins?) reviewed the standards across states and calculated that PK-12 would need to be extended more than 9 years to meet “standards” that State DPI agencies and legislatures have “set”.

  4. I took a look at the low income data on the website too. I think what’s happened is that they taken the free lunch program and retitled it as low income. To be eligible for free or reduced lunch you need to be not more than twice the poverty level. So take the numbers and divide them in half.
    The upper limit is around $30,000 for lunch. That’s not poor. So relax.
    While well intentioned I’m sure, these wild exaggerations are scaring people into the suburbs. Madison’s anything but poor. Work on the instructional programs.

  5. I know this is not exactly about free lunch, but I feel I have to point out….
    Actually, in a town like Madison where low-income housing is insufficient where it does exist, $30,000 – while not poverty-level – is definitely not enough to raise two or more children on, with an apartment costing $800-1000 per month, spotty public transportation, and little decent and affordable housing close to where people can actually find jobs. If you own (nearly impossible on $30k per year), then you have property taxes of $4,000 + per year on top of $1000 per month in mortgage payments, and that doesn’t look at homeowner’s insurance, car payments, car insurance, health insurance (no job around here that brings in $30 k or less per year includes full health insurance for a family of three, much less four or five), clothing, food, etc.
    There is a reason that demand at our food pantries is up so much in spite of a relatively rosy financial picture for much of Madison and even Dane County. By the time you pay for everything else (and let’s not forget the income taxes and social security that comes out before you even see your paycheck – those whittle down $30k quite a bit), you have little left for food if you are raising a family (even a small one) on $30K per year in Madison. And what if you have a child with asthma or major food allergies, or something else that is a constant source of stress on children’s bodies and stress on the parent(s)? One uninsured hospital visit (which many of our working poor have to rely on for otherwise unavailable primary care) can set you back hundreds or even thousands of dollars, and that takes a long time to pay off at $50 per month if you can work out a payment plan.
    All this adds to the importance of making sure our kids get food at school no matter what – for even 25-30% of our kids (not the 50% plus FRL at our elementary school), that may be their main source of food for the day. Feeding kids at school has made a huge difference in many ways. So yes, it is key to families even with a family income of $30k per year and 3-4 kids. That may not exactly meet the federal definition of poverty, it doesn’t buy anywhere near what it did the last time poverty guidelines were seriously adjusted for inflation and the like. There were eight kids in my family, and our dad worked for the government in a professional position (though he made less than he would have in a private company). He probably made nowhere near what you would call poverty level either (we didn’t qualify for FRL), but we ate a lot of mac and cheese and other kinds of stewpot casserole with canned veggies, and drank mixed dry milk and water, and still wore 90% hand-me-downs from cousins and friends. And at least my dad could fix things that broke – thank God – or we would never have had a car that ran at all.

  6. I’m in favor of both free lunch and free breakfast. That’s a good deal.
    I take issue with characterizing Madison as poor. The federal stats show Madison’s poverty level declining the last 10 years. School age children are only 10% poor according to the feds; there’s somewhere beween 2 and 3 thousand children living in poverty in the Madison School District. So, somebody’s pulling you leg.
    Again, all in favor of a breakfast program, I just don’t like playing games with statistics.

  7. I’m a bit surprised by assertions that we don’t have poverty in the district. How much you see may depend on where you live, which schools you have ongoing contact with, and how intensive your contact is with the schools. My anecdotal experience as a parent tells me that there are a large number of children who are in our schools every day who live under desperate circumstances that are beyond most of our imaginations. I suggest that people visit some of the schools that appeared on that list in Isthmus yesterday to get a sense of the range and depth of poverty in our community and how it is affecting our children and our schools.
    Note: my point is that we need to have a lot better information, a lot better public discussion, and a much more thoughtful process to figure out what the resource needs are and how to meet those needs.

  8. I think it’s important to remember the distinction between a given community’s poverty rate, and individual school poverty rates.
    For example, where I live, the city of Monona has a federally defined “poverty rate” of about 5 percent. But at its elementary school that enrolls all Monona students K-2, the number of children eligible for a free or reduced lunch is 20 percent.
    One of the challenges faced by many school districts (primarily associated with urban districts, but I would argue a distinct issue in rural districts, and a growing one even in suburban districts)is that the pool of children they educate is often more poor than the community where they live. In all but a handful of districts in Wisconsin, the number of families without children in a school district far exceeds the number of families with children in the district. Thus, growing numbers of poor families with children may not have a dramatic impact on a community’s overall poverty rate, but it can noticeably increase the number of “poverty-level” children enrolled in the school district.

  9. I’d be happy to take anyone on a quick tour of the northside- Kennedy Heights, Vera Court, The Woodlands, Northport Apts. and the Packers Townhomes- all of which combined contribute at least 1,000 students of poverty to the MMSD. And guess what? We can WALK between them.
    Anyone who tells you that Madison doesn’t support a large percentage of children of poverty is pulling more than just your leg.
    But folks, it’s not just recent immigrants and people of color that are in poverty. On the northside, I am seeing growing numbers of students who are being raised by grandparents who are retirees (and living on their pensions with 1-3 kids to support). That’s what happens when mom and/or dad is dead or in prison- grandma and grandpa step up to the plate, and create a family of 5 living on $22K a year. From what I hear, this isn’t a northside-specific issue…hence MMSD students being 2 to 3 times as impoverished as they were when gram and gramps sent their children to our schools.

  10. I would like to echo David’s comments. I’ve seen the numbers in Isthmus and in MMSD reports. The numbers are greatly outweighed by my experiences with my sons classmates from K – 12.
    We often talk about teachers and parents bringing in school supplies. I know plenty of nurses who were buying underwear and socks for kids who didn’t have them, teachers who were bringing their childrens’ hand-me-down winter coats for students in their classes, etc.
    You haven’t lived until you’ve sat through a ‘special person of the week’ presentation that explains that mom is in jail, or that we just moved to a special new home near the capital (read YWCA shelter).
    Its there, and its painfully real. We need to acknowledge it and respond with compassion, not disbelief.

  11. I should add that we really are all on the same side. numbers are just numbers. Statistics just that. In the final analysis we all want the children to be served well. You seem like good champions.
    All my best, with love and respect

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